Recently we were treated to a repeat of a three part series, A Very British Renaissance by James Fox.  I found that the second episode had many overlaps with my area of interest.  North Americans in particular would have been interested in his coverage of John White (c. 1540–c. 1590), governor of the Roanoke Colony off the coast of North Carolina, the first English colony in America.

Before I retired in 2010, I taught four years of History of Mathematics, and Thomas Harriot (ca. 1560 – 1621) figured in the lectures I gave.  According to his MacTutor biography he was “mathematician and astronomer who founded the English school of algebra.  He is described by Fauvel and Goulding as... the greatest mathematician that Oxford has produced ...”  Through his telescope, he observed craters on the moon a few months before Galileo, and I do feel it a bit unfair that in regard to the development of algebra, Descartes not only gets the lion’s share of the credit, but those of the tiger and elephant also.

After graduating from St Mary Hall, Oxford, Harriot travelled to the Americas, accompanying the 1585 expedition to Roanoke island funded by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane.  Harriot was a vital member of the venture, having translated and learned the Carolina Algonquian language from two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo, who had been brought to England.  He made only this one expedition, around 1585-86, and spent some time in the New World visiting Roanoke Island, expanding his knowledge by improving his understanding of the Carolina Algonquian language. As the only Englishman who had learned Algonkin prior to the voyage, Harriot was vital to the success of the expedition.

James Fox treated us to a sample of Harriot’s Univerſall Alphabet for the language, which included a single character for the “wh” sound which was then also almost universally used in English.  Most people in England these days have abandoned the “h”, so that phonetically one cannot tell whether they are talking about the Prince of Wales or His Cetacean Highness the Prince of Whales.  But I still do, and think it a crying shame that we are losing it, as it descends from the reconstructed Indo-European kw sound, with phonological descendants in Celtic and other languages.  In Gaelic the same root developed into the hard “c” sound while in Welsh it is realized as “p”.

Someone called Gretchen, writing in Quartz, says

Move over Shakespeare, teen girls are the real language disruptors: If women are such natural linguistic innovators, why do they get criticized for the same thing that we praise Shakespeare for?

She takes as her starting point an article Gender and Language Change: The Case of Early Modern Women by Suzanne Grégoire in Toronto, 2006, which quotes

whatever the particular sources of the change, and whether they are regarded as vernacular or prestige innovations, women play an important role in establishing changes as components of the standard language. — Janet Holmes, 1997 (itself a quote from Nevalainen&Brunberg)

 Gretchen, in her “Move Over” article, concludes
All of this leads us to the biggest question: if women are such natural linguistic innovators, why do they get criticized for the same thing that we praise Shakespeare for? Plain old-fashioned sexism.

Our society takes middle-aged men more seriously than young women for a whole host of reasons, so it’s only logical that we have also been conditioned to automatically respect the tone and cadence of the typical male voice, as well as their word choices.

Sure, let’s encourage young women to speak with confidence, but not by avoiding vocal fry or “like” or whatever the next linguistic disruption is. Let’s tell them to speak with confidence because they’re participating in a millennia-old cycle of linguistic innovation—and one that generations of powerful men still haven’t figured out how to crack.

Well I don’t agree.  I don’t judge linguistic changes by whom or where they come from, but what their effect is.  If, to use two Cantonese expressions, young ladies are in this matter deliberately 求其 kau4 kei4 = casual; careless, then they will be judged as 水皮 seoi2 pei4 = very poor or weak (in certain area, field, skill, quality, etc); inferior, bad — the latter expression often heard when watching a sporting event.

So, are women to blame?  On the principle that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, I think we should look deeper into this rather than make such a snap judgement.  Two good books for looking at the development of language are

History in English Words by Owen Barfield, and

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher

The first of these shows how much thought has developed in English, tracing concepts back to before English emerged as a separate language.  There are a few Anthroposophical speculations thrown in, but these do not really spoil the main picture.

The second goes more deeply into grammatical developments, both in English and the Semitic languages, as well as some others.  It is the first time I have seen a cogent explanation of how the well-developed structure of modern Arabic could have developed out of a group of languages like those we find inscribed on clay tablets.

Now while the written material from past centuries, especially ones long long ago, is largely produced by men, it is quite plausible to me that processes such as the turning of Latin into its descendants which are all characteristically modern European languages was mediated by how women spoke to their children (or in the upper classes, those placed in their care.)  And by and large, these have been profitable developments.  Modern European languages are, to my mind, much more suitable structurally for scientific communication than the Classical ones.  (I cannot do such an in-depth comparison over time for Oriental and African Languages, as the School in London is called.)

But even so, since WW2, things do seem to have gone downhill.  In this video, a Chinese teacher at a school in Hampshire is teaching pupils about irregular verbs in the English language. The verb in question is “to swim”. This is all part of a unique experiment in which five teachers from China take over the education of 50 teenagers in a Hampshire school to see whether the high-ranking Chinese education system can teach us a lesson. (Aired 04/Aug/2015 on BBC Two)


Perhaps they should listen to the great Calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow: here are the words of his song Education (I would substitute the word “generation” for “population” these days):

Education! Education!
That is the foundation.
Our rising population needs sound education.
To be recognized anywhere you go,
You got to have your certificate to show.
To enjoy any kind o’ happiness,
Knowledge is the key to success.
Children go to school and learn well,
Otherwise later on in life you go catch real hell.
Without an education in yuh head,
Your whole life will be pure misery – you better off dead.
For there is simply no room in this whole wide world
For an uneducated little boy or girl.
Don’t allow idle companions to lead you astray;
To earn tomorrow, you gotta learn today